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Terms tobacco users employ to describe e-cigarette aerosol
  1. Mohammad Ebrahimi Kalan1,2,
  2. Allison J Lazard2,3,
  3. Jennifer Mendel Sheldon1,
  4. Callie Whitesell1,
  5. Marissa G Hall1,
  6. Kurt M Ribisl1,
  7. Noel T Brewer1,2
  1. 1Department of Health Behavior, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, USA
  2. 2Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, School of Medicine, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, USA
  3. 3School of Media and Journalism, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Mohammad Ebrahimi Kalan, Department of Health Behavior, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, USA; Ebi_kalan{at}; Dr Noel T Brewer, Health Behavior, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, USA; ntb{at}


Background The scientific term for the substance people inhale and exhale from a vaping device is ‘aerosol’, but whether the public uses this term is unclear. To inform tobacco control communication efforts, we sought to understand what tobacco users call e-cigarette aerosols.

Methods Participants were a national convenience sample of 1628 US adults who used e-cigarettes, cigarettes or both (dual users). In an online survey, conducted in spring 2021, participants described what ‘people inhale and exhale when they vape’, using an open-ended and then a closed-ended response scale. Participants then evaluated warning statements, randomly assigned to contain the term ‘aerosol’ or ‘vapor‘ (eg, ‘E-cigarette aerosol/vapor contains nicotine, which can lead to seizures’).

Results In open-ended responses, tobacco users most commonly provided the terms ‘vapor’ (31%) and ‘smoke’ (23%) but rarely ‘aerosol’ (<1%). In closed-ended responses, the most commonly endorsed terms were again ‘vapor’ (57%) and ‘smoke’ (22%) but again infrequently ‘aerosol’ (2%). In closed-ended responses, use of the term ‘vapor’ was more common than other terms among people who were older; white; gay, lesbian or bisexual; college educated; or vape users only (all p<0.05). In the experiment, warnings using the terms ‘aerosol’ and ‘vapor’ were equally effective (all p>0.05).

Conclusions The public rarely uses the term ‘aerosol’ to describe e-cigarette output, potentially complicating educational efforts that use the term. Future studies should explore public knowledge and understanding of the terms ‘aerosol’ and the more popular ‘vapor’ to better inform vaping risk communication.

  • electronic nicotine delivery devices
  • public policy
  • packaging and labelling

Data availability statement

Data are available on reasonable request.

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Data availability statement

Data are available on reasonable request.

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  • Twitter @ebrahimikalan, @noelTbrewer

  • Contributors MEK accepts full responsibility for the work and the conduct of the study, had access to the data, and controlled the decision to publish. Study concept and design: MEK, AJL, JMS, MGH, KMR and NTB. Acquisition, analysis or interpretation of data: all authors. Drafting of the manuscript: MEK and NTB. Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: all authors. Statistical analysis: MEK, CAW and NTB. Obtained funding: NTB. Administrative, technical or material support: NTB and JMS. Study supervision: NTB and JMS.

  • Funding Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01DA048390. K01HL147713 from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health supported Marissa Hall’s time working on the paper.

  • Disclaimer The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

  • Competing interests NTB and KMR have served as paid expert consultants in litigation against tobacco companies.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.